On the eve of yet another huge day in the spotlight at Royal Ascot, Frankie Dettori received the ultimate compliment on Wednesday from the trainer who last year broke the all-time record for number of British winners.
“No disrespect to Lester Piggott, but isn’t Frankie the greatest jockey?” asked Mark Johnston, leaving no doubt that he believes he is.
Nonsense, I hear you cry. Sacrilege, even. Better than Lester! The legendary rider of 116 winners at Royal Ascot, including 11 Gold Cups. Only last Tuesday, the racecourse unveiled a life-size sculpture of the man.
Dettori, who partners the hot favourite Stradivarius in Thursday’s Gold Cup, stole the show aboard Sir Michael Stoute’s Crystal Ocean in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, but it was his earlier victory aboard Johnston’s Raffle Prize in the Queen Mary Stakes that prompted the accolade.
Royal Ascot – Wednesday results
2.30: 1st Raffle Prize, 2nd Kimari, 3rd Final Song, 4th Liberty Beach
3.05: 1st Dashing Willoughby, 2nd Barbados, 3rd Nayef Road
3.40: 1st Crystal Ocean, 2nd Magical, 3rd Waldgeist
4.20: 1st Move Swiftly, 2nd Rawdaa 3rd I Can Fly 4th Veracious
5.00: 1st Afaak, 2nd Clon Coulis, 3rd Raising Sand, 4th Stylehunter
5.35: 1st Southern Hills, 2nd Platinum Star, 3rd Glasvegas
“He was a true professional as a young rider back in 1993. I know he’s a superstar. And on the big day he’s special,” said the always forthright trainer.
It didn’t take long for Dettori to add weight to that Johnston assertion when giving Crystal Ocean a canny, confident ride in atrocious conditions to deny the Ballydoyle favourite Magical in the afternoon’s feature.
“It’s not very pleasant out there, but I stayed out wide for the fresh ground,” reported Dettori. “I kicked on the final turn, he responded well and I got very little kickback because I was in the first two.
“I was worried about the ground, but he’s tough, a heavyweight of the sport. He never runs a bad race.”
This was a breakthrough Group One for Crystal Ocean and nobody could argue he didn’t deserve to score at the top level after hitting the crossbar in three Group Ones.
“If you look at his record, it’s quite amazing,” said Stoute, already the all-time leading trainer at Royal Ascot before this 80th success. “He may be a better horse at a mile and a half, but he proved today that he’s certainly pretty good at a mile and a quarter as well.”
Sea Of Class was the disappointment of the race, well beaten in fifth, but that was no great surprise after being given the go-ahead only as racing got under way amid serious concerns about the ever softening going.
“She clearly dislikes really deep ground,” confirmed the jockey. “Trying to take the positives, the filly felt great and travelled really well. We were just too far back.”
Drama in the opener
Back to the Queen Mary and once again there was drama right at the start of the day’s opener. On Tuesday Accidental Agent dug his toes in and refused to take part in the race he won last year. And yesterday the fancied Irish challenger Ickworth did likewise in the juvenile fillies’ sprint.
Both were deemed runners and so all bets were lost, a real kick in the teeth for anyone who backed both – and there will have been plenty amongst the huge crowds.
Raffles Prize scrambled home by a head from Kimari, part of American trainer’s Wesley Ward’s annual Royal Ascot squad.
“Frankie did me this time!” protested the amiable Ward, who has enjoyed much success with Dettori in recent years, including when they teamed up with the brilliant Lady Aurelia in this race in 2016.
Kimari was ridden instead by US Hall Of Famer John Velasquez and he probably wished he hadn’t bothered when his narrow defeat was followed by a nine-day ban for misuse of the whip.
The week hadn’t started too well for jockey Oisin Murphy, either, when he failed a breath test before racing at Salisbury on Sunday, but it brightened up considerably when he rode Dashing Willoughby to victory in the Queen’s Vase.
This looked for all the world like a seventh victory in the race for Aidan O’Brien with two of his four runners, Norway and Western Australia, heading the market. But both flopped badly, leaving the Ballydoyle outsider Barbados to chase home Andrew Balding’s colt.